It’s a national symbol of sacrifice, battles and honor. Even as it currently undergoes a $4.5 million project to refurbish grave markers and upgrade terrain, the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl is overdue for its first major update since being dedicated more than 60 years ago, shortly after World War II.
In fact, even as the nation’s WWII veterans are dying at a rate of 1,900 a day, the cemetery is already at casket capacity, with 33,500 burials, said Gene Castagnetti, director of the cemetery. That’s spurring the good decision for a $24 million upgrade to create space for 9,000 more columbarium niches, urn space for veterans for the next 20 years, by moving administrative offices out.
The idea is to raze the two 1948-built administration buildings near Punchbowl’s entrance to make way for more future urns. A residential portion of Puowaina Drive, the current access road, would be turned into a dead-end street, a new cemetery access mauka of Puowaina would be built on five acres of U.S. property, and a new two-story hillside administrative facility and visitors center would be built. Sidewalk improvements in Punchbowl also are planned.
There are now more than 10,000 columbarium urn spaces at Punchbowl, thanks to an expansion completed about 18 months ago. But the 2,552 still-open spaces are expected to be filled in less than five years, during which time exponentially growing numbers of burials from WWII and Korean War veterans are expected.
“We are the cemetery of choice, because it’s recognized as an international symbol of selfless sacrifice,” Castagnetti said, “and our veterans who served nationally, or under our nation’s fabric, like the idea of being buried, or interred as cremated remains, in a national shrine.”
To be sure, Hawaii’s historic relationship with the military has been paradoxically cozy and contentious — notably, native rights and protection of aina have clashed with training on sites such as Kahoolawe, Makua Valley and Pohakuloa on Hawaii Island.
But there’s no denying that U.S. military presence is an interwoven part of Hawaii modern society. A Rand Corp. report in June, in quantifying the military’s impact in Hawaii for the first time in nearly 50 years, found the military pumped up to $12.2 billion into Hawaii in 2009 — or more than 18 percent of total spending in the islands.
Punchbowl — with its scenic and soulful vistas anchored by the iconic statue of Lady Columbia — is among Hawaii’s most popular tourist destinations. Through the decades, impressive upkeep and a profound aura continue to draw more than 5 million visitors annually to pay their respects at the cemetery, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
An environmental impact statement likely would be required for the Punchbowl renovation. Meanwhile, a public meeting to discuss the proposal will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Stevenson Middle School.
Interestingly, that meeting will be held one day after hundreds of Japanese-American WWII veterans receive the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C.
From Hawaii, 23 veterans in their mid-80s to 90s will be among those appearing with distinction at Wednesday’s ceremony, hosted by House Speaker John Boehner.
Congress last year voted to award the medal collectively to some 13,000 nisei soldiers who served in the renowned 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service during the war.
“We knew that the recognition we were receiving was the result of lost lives and bloodshed,” Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, himself a 442nd veteran, said of the honor earlier this year. “I am very grateful to this nation for remembering us.”
Sacrifice and honor: On the battlefield and off, in life and in death.